The New Fashion Initiative

Microplastics Expert Anna Cummins Explains How to Save Our Oceans

Plastic pollution is one of the most daunting problems facing humankind. Even our synthetic clothes (also made of plastic) are a major contributors to ocean pollution, by shedding small particles called microplastics. But solutions are possible—and the longest-lasting, most effective solutions are laws and regulations to protect the environment from plastic. Luckily, there’s precedent here. The 2015 Microbeads Free Waters Act serves as a model for how activists and the public can work together with the government to make change. In this interview, Anna Cummins, 5Gyres co-founder and plastic activist talks about the research that that led to the microbeads ban and what fashion activists can learn from their work. You can also read our Microplastics Action Guide for more resources and tips on curbing plastic pollution.

What do you think is the most common misconception about how microplastics and plastic pollution?

Anna Cummins: First, I think the general public doesn’t yet have a firm grasp on the microfibers problem. There has been a fair bit (and rising) of media attention on the issue of microfibers shed from washing our fleece clothing, but many people don’t realize that fibers shed from most of our textiles—our synthetic clothing, our linens, towels—even our cotton clothing sheds fibers. Synthetic fibers however are more likely to persist indefinitely in aquatic environments.

anna cummins 5gyres
Anna Cummins, co-founder of 5Gyres
And yet there’s hope of passing legislation to help battle microplastics. How did the groundbreaking coalition to ban microbeads in the US come about?

Anna Cummins:While we don’t yet fully understand the human health ramifications of synthetic microfiber contamination throughout our food chain—in our drinking water, seafood, honey, beer, sea salt, etcetera—common sense and the precautionary principle would suggest that inundating our bodies with chemical-laden synthetic products warrant concern.

Anna Cummins: In 2012 and 2013, in partnership with Dr. Sam Mason at SUNY Fredonia, we sampled the five Great Lakes for microplastics to better engage inland communities in understanding the ocean plastic issue. To our great surprise, we discovered large quantities of microplastics in Lake Erie that we ultimately traced directly back to a source: plastic microbeads from personal care products. When we find microplastics in the open ocean, we can’t tell where they came from – what products, brands, or countries, but finding these plastic microbeads allowed us to hold the polluters accountable.

We had science in hand and went directly to industry to share our findings. But we were told we needed to do more research on precisely whose microbeads were polluting the Great Lakes. So we began to engage our partners in a policy-campaign to ban microbeads from products. Soon, a strong coalition of many NGOs working together formed, including Story of Stuff, NRDC, Californians Against Waste, Clean Water Action, Surfrider Foundation, the Alliance for the Great Lakes, and many, many other groups. Together we were able to work with Assemblymember Richard Bloom to pass a strong bill in California, which ultimately provided the momentum for a national bill in 2015 – the Microbeads Free Waters Act.

What can fashion activists learn from your success passing the microbeads legislation?

Anna Cummins: This victory reiterated the power of coalition work. It also highlighted the lengths that certain industry groups will go to to protect short term profits over long-term human health. Representatives from ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) lobbied to pass weak microbeads bills in other states that allowed for “bioplastic microbeads,” which don’t break down in ocean water and perpetuate the same pollution issues. Ultimately we won as a coalition but are continuing to watch ALEC, as they now fight to pass “bans on bans,” preventing local municipalities from passing any bans on plastic bags, bottles, Styrofoam etc. So far they have passed these pre-emption bills in eight states around the country.

What was the most difficult thing about pushing this legislation through the federal government?

Anna Cummins: Once we were able to pass a strong bill in California that didn’t allow for the substitution of bioplastic microbeads, we had essentially won the battle. Companies can’t produce different products for California versus the rest of the country and didn’t want a “patchwork” of conflicting design regulations around the US. Industry finally got behind the Federal bill, which former President Obama signed in the final weeks of 2015.

The most challenging piece of this campaign was battling industry forces that championed a “bogus bill” through ALEC, which looked on paper like an environmentally friendly bill and confused legislators.

What kind of progress is being made to legislate microplastics? And how can we get involved?

Anna Cummins: Policymakers and companies are examining numerous approaches to the microfibers issue: testing the feasibility of having entire cities add filtration devices to their washing machines, designing new washing machines with built-in filtration, doing research on “non” or “low-shedding textiles,” and experimenting with a host of consumer-facing filtration devices. Another tool that many companies are calling for is a “shedability standard,” a threshold for how much microfiber shedding is allowable against which to measure progress or compliance.

More importantly, we need to deeply examine the industry of “fast fashion,” which is essentially another form of throwaway plastic, as they’re synthetic products that are ultimately designed for the landfill. Can we return to the idea of an heirloom culture where products are designed to last and be worn for decades? Can we invest in a piece of clothing that is meant to be mended or returned to the manufacturer after use, to be incorporated into new textiles?

We need to deeply examine the industry of “fast fashion,” which is essentially another form of throwaway plastic – synthetic products that are ultimately designed for the landfill.

Anna cummins

I have a dress that my mother bought in 1960 and passed on to me. Sixty years later, this dress is timeless, in great condition, and one that I will hopefully pass onto my daughter. This is the sort of true sustainability we need to take into consideration in the clothing industry, as the price we pay for short-term thinking and seasonal fashion simply isn’t worth our long-term survival.

Read the New Fashion Initiative Microplastics Action Guide for more resources and tips on curbing plastic pollution.

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